Just two weeks into the new school year, Jacquelyn Allsopp, a New Jersey mother of three, was considering unenrolling her 5-year-old daughter from kindergarten. “So much of kindergarten is learning through play, socialization,” Allsopp told Katie Reilly of Time magazine in September. “If you’re not learning that, how is this productive?”
Allsopp isn’t alone in her concerns. Parents of kindergarten-age children have had to weigh the health risks of in-person schooling (if it’s an option in their district) or assist with online learning amid other responsibilities. And as a result, more parents are choosing a third option: hold their 5-year-olds back.
New data show 17 percent of parents are waiting to enroll their children in kindergarten during the pandemic, nearly triple the amount who waited to enroll in 2010 (the most recent year of data available). These increases have occurred across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines, whereas historically, white and high-income families have been more likely to wait to enroll their children in kindergarten.
These findings come from a survey from the University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience. The Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development (RAPID) - Early Childhood Survey is designed to gather essential information regarding the needs, health promoting behaviors, and well-being of families with children ages 5 and younger during the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
Missing kindergarten could have long-term drawbacks
Parents who responded to the RAPID survey listed a number of reasons for not enrolling their children in kindergarten, either in-person or virtual, including the unlikelihood of their child wearing a mask all day, exposure to too much screen time, and fear of chaos as schools and districts adapt to changing public health conditions. But the decision to not enroll could come with drawbacks.
In waiting to enroll until next year, families can either “redshirt” their 5-year-olds, that is, enroll in kindergarten in fall 2021, or they could skip the grade entirely, as many states do not require kindergarten. In either case, children may miss out on the educational and social benefits of school. And if parents choose to have their children skip kindergarten, they could enter first grade unprepared.
Kindergarten has become the new first grade, with teachers spending more time on literacy and math. Full-day kindergarten, now the norm in most districts, has been shown to address early achievement disparities (PDF).
But remote learning offers a different experience altogether. Some parents feel it’s insufficient, and others, who are facing uncertain or irregular working conditions themselves, could feel as if managing their children’s remote schooling is too much. According to RAPID data, parents who are unemployed or laid off and those who are temporarily out of work or furloughed have withdrawn kindergartners at higher rates than parents working full time. And parents with incomes below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, who generally redshirt their children at lower rates, are missing kindergarten at the same rate as parents with higher incomes (17 percent).
For these children, the pandemic could create compounding traumas: falling behind their peers in social and academic skills and shouldering the stress caused by their family navigating a newly uncertain financial picture. And with many younger children missing preschool, teachers could face classrooms filled with unprepared kindergartners in need of extra attention next fall.
I fear my daughter’s kindergarten experience will be fraught with chaos and last minute changes.
—38-year-old parent from New York responding to the RAPID-EC survey during the week of June 22
How policymakers can support children and teachers when schools reopen
For much of the pandemic, the conversation about children’s education has focused on short-term needs, such as opening schools, providing laptops and broadband connections, and minimizing health risks. Teachers and administrators have done extraordinary work under challenging conditions.
In the longer term, policymakers will have to address the broader effects of kindergarten withdrawal. Children and their teachers will need more support than usual to establish school routines, develop social-emotional skills, and fast-track instruction of academic content. Professional development for teachers and hiring more staff could help with mixed-age classrooms, and targeted interventions for children most likely to have experienced learning loss could help them catch up.
Policymakers can also work to build more long-term resilience into the early education system by instituting compulsory minimum schooling ages. At present, only 12 states require 5-year-olds attend kindergarten. Compulsory schooling laws can ensure all children receive critical early educational experiences.
For now, more funding is needed. Federal and state resources are in flux, and even if education relief becomes available, kindergarten withdrawal creates its own problems. Public school systems are funded partially on prior-year enrollment and attendance, so this year’s withdrawal of kindergartners could cause next year’s school budgets to constrict. Upcoming Urban Institute analysis indicates that declines in the enrollment of kindergartners would decrease funding to predominately low-income school districts. Without changes to the school funding model, these school districts may not have the capacity to address the detrimental effects of the pandemic on their students’ education.
Of course, schools may not fully reopen in-person next fall either, as a COVID-19 vaccine may not be approved for young children before the new school year. If the pandemic does disrupt another year, our youngest learners could fall further behind, jeopardizing a generation’s future.
Philip Fisher, Philip H. Knight chair and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, contributed to this post.